The Explainer: The Coalition King

As he was in films, so he is in life: Joseph Ejercito Estrada like so many politicians before him, has been the master of political seduction, conducing at times a cheeky, reckless, but more often than not, successful love affair with the electorate.

Tonight we resume our series on the parties that produce presidents, with a look at coalition politics. On center stage on The Explainer tonight is Joseph Estrada not only as Box Office and Ballot Box king, but Coalition King, too. I’m Manolo Quezon.




He’s no spring chicken now, as they say, and indeed, the oldest presidential candidate in a crowded field. They say he’s not allowed to run, the Constitution forbids it; he says, he can run, because he never finished his term and besides, long out of office, he doesn’t enjoy the undue advantage the Constitution felt made it unwise for presidents to be able to campaign while in office.

Not that being in office has prevented Estrada’s wedding date, the President, shown here with Estrada recently in Cebu, from campaigning for a position. Off-camera you have to wonder if the two continued smiling so broadly; Estrada, after all, has unfinished business when it comes to his former vice president and his early successor. He’s the third former president who’s made a bid to seek the presidency again: Aguinaldo tried, and failed, in 1935, thirty four years after he left office; Laurel tried, and failed, in 1949, four years after he dissolved the puppet republic in Tokyo.

All three presidents believed their presidencies had been preterminated due to outside events and wanted vindication. Estrada’s bid comes eight years after Edsa Dos, which he argues made a shambles of the Constitution and democracy because of the way he was ousted.

Estrada believes that from day one, a faction within his administration plotted to oust him. These kinds of scheming and intrigue, paranoia and pointed accusations, are nothing new in our national leadership, even among erstwhile allies. The Katipunan, for one, had two factions, with Aguinaldo’s Magdalo edging out Bonifacio’s Magdawing from power and control of the revolution.

Factions, of course, are part of our politics and indeed, a feature of Asian politics. We may have big single movements or parties but they’re usually divided or subdivided into factions. Sometimes, the factions would publicly quarrel, and form new combinations with other allies, temporarily or permanently.

But there’s another tendency, too, and that’s to unite to form super-parties; we’ve had super-parties three times: prewar, during the Commonwealth, during martial law, and at present with the creation of the current ruling coalition.

And it really does start with a coalition. Before 1935 there had been two major parties: the Nacionalistas and the Democratas. In 1933, both split and their membership recombined to form two parties, which then patched up their quarrels to recombine as a coalition: in 1938, the coalition partners would formally unite to reestablish the Nacionalista Party leaving no sign of the existence of the Democratas.

Unity didn’t survive the war; as we saw in our last presidential party episode, with Roxas came the two-party system, which endured until 1972.

But something else happened –in 1957 and 1961- the elections in which Carlos P. Garcia became president and Diosdado Macapagal became vice-president, and then when Macapagal defeated Garcia in turn for the presidency. In 1957, Garcia became the first president in our history who did not secure a majority in the elections. He was elected President with 41% of the vote: and Macapagal became the first vice-president in our history who did not come from the same party as the president. Between 1957 and 1961 then, we saw the birth of politics as we now know it.

That’s because 1957 also saw the election to the senate of this man: Rogelio de la Rosa. From the late 1930s he’d been the leading man of Philippine cinema. In the 50’s he was still at the top of his game. But something had happened to change the political game, making it possible for de la Rosa to do the unthinkable: make a successful bid for the senate. That change was, the removal of bloc voting, the system in which voters could simply write a party’s name on the ballot, giving his vote to all the party’s candidate. It had been put in place in 1941 when the senate was revived, precisely to serve as an incentive for party discipline and consciousness. It was removed and what replaced party loyalty was the cult of celebrity: parties began to fall apart as they no longer enjoyed advantages under the rules and individual candidates with money or fame could campaign on their own.

And in 1961, de la Rosa did something else: he challenged Garcia for the presidency and his brother in law, Diosdado Macapagal who’s first wife had been de la Rosa’s sister, for the presidency too; then he did something even more surprising, so that Nick Joaquin famously called it “the untimely withdrawal of Roger de la Rosa”: he pulled out of the campaign and endorsed Macapagal, who won. But he’d set the precedent of an actor, already in the senate, daring to make a presidential run.

Eight years after that, in 1969, San Juan’s mayor after a protracted legal struggle, became Joseph Ejercito, blacksheep scion of the thoroughly respectable and professional Ejercito clan.

Estrada’s career was therefore born during the waning days of the old two-party system, in which third party insurgencies increasingly complicated the landscape. In 1957, disgruntled Magsaysay loyalists bolted the Nacionalistas and made it impossible for Garcia to secure a majority; in 1961 Manglapus’ Party for Philippine Progress complicated the Macapagal-Marcos showdown; only in 1969 would there be no third party complications.

But then that was practically the eve of martial law, during which Estrada would be a well-entrenched local government executive, watching Marcos absorbing all the old parties, or factions thereof, into his Japanese Occupation-style superparty, the KBL. In 1986, Estrada was ousted from office as a result of the purge of all local officials after the Edsa Revolution.

Since 1986, our presidents have been banned from seeking reelection and among other things, this has meant that the parties and coalitions they create, have had a mixed record when it comes to surviving the presidents that created them.

While the faces remain familiar, there’s been so much reshuffling, rebranding, and realignments, it’s often hard to figure who was where and at what time.

Cory Aquino herself almost immediately abandoned the Unido and formed her own coalition, campaign in 1987 for the restored Congress as the Lakas ng Bayan Coalition composed of the Laban ng Demokratiking Pilipino and the Liberal Party.

The result was a colossal landslide on par with the Nacionalista landslide of 1938. In the senate, 22 out of 24 candidates elected clung to Cory’s coattails, only two came from the Grand Alliance for Democracy –itself a coalition composed of the has-beens of the Marcos years, from the Nacionalista Party, the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan, Partido Nacionalista ng Pilipinas, Christian Socialist Democratic Party, Mindanao Alliance and the Muslim Federal Party.

Today of course, the LDP headed by Senator Angara, is a shadow of its former self; while for two decades after Edsa, the Liberals never quite grew until recent events reenergized that party.

President Ramos created perhaps the most successful coalition of our post-Edsa politics after he lost the nomination process in the LDP to Ramon Mitra Jr. Ramos bolted, was adopted by Manglapus’ teensy-tiny Christian Democratic party, and created Lakas-TAO, later Lakas-CMD.

Lakas, on its own or in coalition partnerships, has contested five national elections, a pretty long run. Coalition success, Ramos soon figured out, depended on the pork barrel.

On its own, it did badly in the senate 1992 as a challenger to the ruling LDP. By 1998, as the ruling party, it lost the presidency but had a big bloc in the senate.

Estrada, however, during his presidency raided Lakas, ensuring majorities for himself in the House; but he wasn’t obsessed with the pork barrel, in fact wanted it reduced, alienating the House which ended up impeaching him. Enter his nemesis, his vice-president and successor,  who kicked him out, and whose coalitions have successfully competed in three national elections and is preparing to fight it out in 2010.

The first two times the President’s coalition competed, it did well;

but in 2007 it faced a senate defeat on the level of the disasters Elpidio Quirino and Ferdinand Marcos faced during the twilight of their presidencies and for similar reasons.

Which brings us back to the GAD coalition of 1987, and how the other story of Edsa has been the reconsolidation, revival, and return to power of the forces that lost in 1986.

The GAD had mavericks like Eva Estrada Kalaw, but its successful candidates, nationally, were only two. Juan Ponce Enrile, who came in 24th in 1987;

And the ousted mayor of San Juan, Joseph Estrada who came in 14th .

Estrada would seek the vice-presidency, successfully, in 1992, a year in which, if Danding Cojuangco and Imelda Marcos hadn’t split the loyalist vote, would have meants a restoration of the KBL old guard; instead, they had to wait six more years when Estrada led a coalition of KBL veterans, his new, mass base, and others, to successfully win the presidency.

Estrada’s years as a national leader has seen the names change, but the composition of his populist coalition remain steady: the remnants of the NP and KBL, spin-offs of the NP like the NPC, and his fan base turned into a loyal political base with the help of groups like the Iglesia ni Kristo.

His dramatic political history has defined the identity of the coalitions with which he’s been identified: oppositionist to the core, before 1998 and after 2001.

And imbued with the mythos of a paradise lost, due to the aborted nature of Estrada’s presidency.

A story that has been portrayed as a double-feature tragedy with the ill-fated quest for the presidency of Estrada’s friend, Fernando Poe, Jr. who very narrowly –officially speaking, anyway- lost his 2004 bid.

And this is perhaps the best way to understand Estrada and the coalitions he’s cultivated: no one has better mastered the drama of opposition politics than Estrada himself.

Even his choice of running mate, Makati kingping Jejomar Binay, is an opposition rerun: Binay stuck it out with Estrada in 2001, he stuck it out with Poe in 2004, he stuck it out and iwill stick it out with Estrada all the way to 2010.

And Binay’s own political vehicle, the Partido Demokratikong-Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan, or PDP-Laban, is one of the few anti-Marcos opposition parties burn during martial law, to have survived to the present day. It’s leading lights, from Nene Pimentel to Binay himself, have been oppositionists more  often than they have been members of a cozy administration majority.

And so you have the coalition of the dispossessed, in more ways than one: Estrada and Enrile go back to the martial law years and their embittered post-Edsa experiences; Binay was with Cory but after Cory has been at loggerheads with most administrations except Estrada’s.

Theirs is a coalition born of a particular time and place, a populist coalition built on an active resistance to the Edsa coalitions that gave birth to the Lakas-CMD and today’s hybrid Lakas-Kampi CMD.

When we return, we’re going to meet the spokesman of the indestructible Joseph Estrada: and ask her, is this campaign merely a nostalgia trip, a last hurrah, or does it offer something relevant to our times?


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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